Like many, our church offers two different worship environments: Traditional and Modern. As a church we genuinely value both expressions as legitimate and beautiful. I'm glad to say that "worship wars" doesn't describe our church.
I recently noticed a social media discussion sparked by a blog trying to make the case that singing hymns out of a hymnal is a best worship practice. How unfortunate. That sort of discussion works against the mutual respect and understanding that many of us in multigenerational churches have worked so hard to encourage.
This specific conversation will eventually die, but another will spring up, so let me (again) speak to what's really going on here: a spiritualizing of cultural preference. All the theological arguments about musical style (classical, gospel, contemporary) and media (paper books vs video projection) is really just spiritualizing non-spiritual things in hopes of making our preferences seem more sacred.
And with all due respect: It. Just. Doesn't. Matter.
Jesus matters. Worship matters. But people are silly, and musical styles are trivial--even the best and most long-lived of them. (Yes, I mean that of both "people" and "musical styles.") And it seems to me that a little information and honesty would help.
The definition is simple. "Hymn: a song of praise to God"
If that's true, it's not about style or era in which it was written. We're all singing hymns. Some are old hymns, some are new hymns. Some have one meter, some have another. Some are rooted in one culture, some in another. And we silly people get all worked up in our trivial arguments about what style or medium is better. It just seems so silly. And trivial.
So, why do we do it? Because music is so meaningful to us! And rightly so! God designed us that way.
But we forget that our music preferences are mostly just a combination of 1) the music culture that was formative to us as kids, and 2) the cultures we experienced during transformative key events--things like coming of age, falling in love, going off to college or war, that first job, or having a spiritual conversion experience. And God wired it into us that music helps us to relive those events.
And God saw what he had made and said, "It is good."
For me, "formative" was growing up at Warwick River Mennonite church in Denbigh (Newport News), Virginia from the late 60s to the mid 70s, and then at Tuttle Avenue/Bahia Vista Mennonite Church in Sarasota, Florida through my teen and young adult years. I still feel like the gospel hymns we sang in these two churches are the "best" ones, and that the red hymnal we used is the "real" hymnal. That stuff is still very nostalgic for me in a way that can even feel spiritual. But I also loved the "new wave" and "rock" cultures of the 80s, with Duran Duran, or the Thompson Twins, or Petra, or Rez Band. Then in the early 90s I had a spiritual awakening in a church that played contemporary music. I later became a worship pastor and led primarily that kind of music. So I continue to be very moved by modern worship music. And some of the older hymns as well.
But that's just me! It's just a reflection of the cultures that were formative and transformative to me. That's all.
What if we were all just that honest? And what if we agreed to have real and gracious conversations about our preferences, without trying to spiritualize them?
Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear someone say,"You know, I really prefer the gospel music styles from the 19th and early 20th centuries. They were already old when I was a kid, but still, it makes me feel good to sing the songs I grew up singing. And I like it best when it's written down with notes I can sing. It just gives me more confidence in singing. It makes me feel more connected to the song. But no offense if someone can't read music, or doesn't want to. There are more eternal things to worry about."
Or, "I remember the first time I heard the band U2. It was so emotive for me, so "spiritual." I'm really moved when we sing hymns that were influenced by their sound. The melody just makes sense to me. It's intuitive. I can't explain it, but I can usually just sing along with new songs the first time I hear them. But sometimes I need help with the words, so it's nice to have them on the screen where I can glance at it if I need to. But no skin off my back if someone else doesn't like it."
Or what if people were honest enough to declare their fan loyalty: "I'm a Fanny Crosby fan," or "David Crowder fan," or "Charles Wesley fan," or "Matt Redman fan," or "George Beverly Shea fan." (And yes, we should notice how narrowly western that list is.)
Personally, I would find that sort of honest conversation refreshing.
So, here's the thing: I don't think we should use hymnals. And I don't think we shouldn't use hymnals. In fact, I don't think we should sit in pews, and I don't think we shouldn't sit in pews. And I don't think we should have a building, and I don't think we shouldn't have a building. And I don't think we should have a pulpit, and I don't think we shouldn't have a pulpit. I hope you get my point:
These things just don't matter. They will not survive the Lord's return!
But imagine this. I really expect that in heaven it's not gonna be rock-n-roll, or four-part SATB a capella, or even eight-part cluster harmonies, although I think all that would be cool. Rather, I suspect that the unison will be more resonant than anything we've ever experienced. And the million-part harmonies will be eternally distinct, and dense. And the time signature will be an "eternity signature" of unending discovery. And none of it will need to be written on collections of paper or projected onto reflective screens. It will be written on our hearts; it will be projected by the Spirit of God into our innermost being.
I believe the hymns of heaven will be profoundly beautiful, like nothing we've ever experienced. And yet, in the midst of all that sensational beauty, our "preference" will decidedly be to just see Jesus.
While we're still this side of heaven, let's do everything we can to renew and encourage our preference for Jesus. And then just put our hearts to music, without measuring one person's preference against another's. And let's decide that whenever we find ourselves moved by a specific style of music or media, we will be even more moved by Jesus, worshiping him in reverence and awe, with humility and great enthusiasm.